Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Last of The Old Guard by Louis Auchincloss
We did not become one of the major corporation law firms in the nation until the present century had begun, but in the 1890s we were prosperous and highly reputable, and Ernest and I were still in our middle thirties. And I was already having qualms about the methods some of our clients were using to achieve monopoly in their fields of action. While financial planning in the issuance of stocks and bonds to consummate corporate mergers and reorganizations did not involve us in strikebreaking or price-cutting of kickbacks or the bribing of judges and legislators, one could not be unaware that such things were going on and heartily endorsed by the cheerful and congenial entrepreneurs who consulted us in other matters in our paneled offices on Wall Street.
My reservations intensified one week when I was in Pittsburg reorganizing a steel company that had been temporarily crippled by a devestating stockholders' suit. I dealt with a bright young vice president who, in order to familiarize me with the whole corporate picture, took me on a tour not only of the company plant but to the part of town where most of the workers lived. In doing the latter he showed himself to be of a more humanitarian frame of mind than the other officers I met.
I needn't here discuss the meaness and desolation of what I saw. The men were largely from middle Europe: Hungarians, Serbs, Ukrainians. Many spoke no English; their homes were soiled and primitive. My guide told me that they were united in nothing but their hatred of the bosses. A recent strike had been bloodily supressed; scabs had taken many of their jobs. I returned to New York with much to mull over.
Lunching with Ernest at our downtown club, I could talk of nothing but the sordid living conditions of the foreign-born steelworkers. Ernest listened patiently and agreed that it was a pity that nothing could be done about it.
"But shouldn't we do something?" I wanted to know.
"I don't see what," he answered with a shrug. "Not effectively, anyhow. We're not labor lawyers. Or legislators. Or judges. The remedying of social justice is hardly our province."
"Yet we represent some of the chief offenders!"
"Not in their offenses. For that they have local or house counsel. There are things they don't choose to discuss with us, and it is not our functon to bring them up."
"But surely we could use our influence on them to show a little heart."
"How to lose a client in one easy lesson. Be sensible, my dear Addie. No one's asking for your advice in these matters. The companies we represent seek our expertise in how to handle their corporate infrastructure in the most profitable manner. What we tell them to do or not to do is always strictly within the law. That is all ye know and all ye need to know."
"But you're a man of good will, Ernest. Doesn't this all trouble you a bit?"
"Will its troubling you or me help the poor worker in any way?"
"No, I suppose not."
"You suppose correctly. Then let us dry our idle tears."
"You seem to have yours pretty well under control."
"I hope so. Look , Addie. I'll go a litter further. A lot of what you see is the birth pain of a new America, the inevitable price of rapid industrial growth. In a single generation we have covered the land with rails, electrified our cities, produced unlimited quantities of gas, steel, coal and oil. A gigantic force has been loosed, and all we can do is bow to it. And hope that one day a humanitarian force will develop in reaction, to control it."
"So, in the meantime, like ostriches, we can bury our heads in the sand"
"The ostrich is a much-maligned bird. Elizabeth Tudor was the greatest monarch Britain ever had because she solved so many problems by doing nothing about them."
"What about her defeat of the Spanish Armada?"
"Oh, a storm took care of that."